Then and now: Women in the steel industry

Real-life ‘Rosie the Riveter’ inspires today’s women in steel

03.15.2016

During World War II, “Rosie the Riveter” was a cultural icon, representing the thousands of women who entered the American workforce. Working mostly in factories and shipyards to support the war effort, these women stepped into the jobs of men who had joined the military.

Betty St. John was one of these women and, as her dear friend Margaret Krolikowski knows, she forged a path in the steel industry for women that continues today.

Margaret is the quality division manager at ArcelorMittal Cleveland, and she has been friends with Betty for years. They met at a women’s camping retreat – “no husbands or children allowed,” Betty insists with a smile. But it was only recently that they discovered a unique connection they share.

“I went to camp one time and I was still wearing my flame retardant clothes,” Margaret remembers. “I was surprised when Betty said she had worked in the steel mill during the war.”

More than 70 years ago, Betty was a student at Fenn College in Cleveland. The college had a co-op program designed to help students pay their way through school. Students would work one quarter, then go to school one quarter and so on.

“I was sent to Republic Steel. [They] were looking for some women because the men were all going off to war,” Betty remembers. “I was in the education department studying to teach science, so I’d had some science courses – some chemistry and physics.” So she went to work at Republic Steel, which is now part of ArcelorMittal Cleveland.

She was assigned to work in the metallurgical lab, but Betty didn’t really consider herself a “Rosie the Riveter.”

She had a friend who worked at the local General Motors plant making airplane parts for the war. “She was a real riveter,” she says.

Still, like the iconic Rosie, Betty was among the first and only women to work in the local steel industry at the time. Her job was to analyze samples of steel, testing the chemical properties.

“We actually had a little lab at the open hearth, it was opposite one of the furnaces. You could imagine the working conditions, it was so hot there,” she recalls. “And they would send a girl over there to work in that lab and because there was not another woman anywhere around, they would send somebody with us, an escort – usually a young man.”

There were some other women who also worked in the labs, “but it was all supervised by men. And there were [female] secretaries, of course,” she recalls.

Ironically, Margaret is the manager who has oversight for ArcelorMittal Cleveland’s quality labs today. Margaret views Betty as a trailblazer.

She tells her friend: “There was a huge bravery in the work you did. We’ve come a long way, I think. There are women supervisors now, and you see women operating the equipment and actually involved directly in the steelmaking process.”

“There was a huge bravery in the work you did. We’ve come a long way... There are women supervisors now, and you see women operating the equipment and actually involved directly in the steelmaking process.”
- Margaret Krolikowski, quality division manager, ArcelorMittal Cleveland

Indeed, a lot has changed. Before her assignment at the steel mill, Betty had worked as an elevator operator at Bailey’s Department Store. She recalls an incredible memory from her job interview, a sign of the times and the discrimination women faced in the workplace:

“I went in for an interview for the elevator operator job and he said, ‘Alright, stand up and turn around.’ He had to check me out if my figure was okay. Can you imagine?!”

The job at Republic had no such hiring requirement, plus it paid more than the department store. Betty was one of four daughters and, around this time, her mother had taken ill. Her youngest sister, also a student at Fenn College, did the lion’s share of caring for their mom and couldn’t get another job outside the home. Betty’s good wages at Republic were enough to pay her tuition and her sister’s.

Betty worked at Republic for about five years. She graduated with her teaching degree, but she chose to stay on at the mill. The war was over by then, but one of the supervisors offered her a permanent job. Eventually, she married a Marine and left the workforce to start and raise her family.

The experience of going to college and working in the steel mill never left her, though. In fact, her legacy is captured on the cover photo of an industry trade magazine (pictured below). It was surely meant to spotlight the important contributions women, like Betty, were making in support of our country and the wartime effort, contributions that paved the way for leaders like Margaret today.

“The thing is,” she recounts, “when I worked in the lab, I’d have jeans on and a lab coat. But they said, ‘Now, wear something very nice.’ I had to get dressed up because they were going to take my picture!”

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